The House of Bernarda Alba, Federico García Lorca’s final and most famous work, has withstood many interpretations, some plausible, others far-fetched. That Lorca was concerned about the coming of fascism to Spain seems certain, yet the fully political reading of this play as an allegory of the totalitarian state undercuts its message about women. Perhaps that’s why this understanding is so popular—it reduces the level of potential misogyny in a story that single-mindedly insists that women are complicit in their own oppression. This excellent production at UCSB reveals a hothouse world in which the very air these women breathe is stagnant and fetid with the odor of broken dreams.
As the matriarch Bernarda Alba, Madeline Minor is terrific, quite literally wielding her cane and her sharp tongue to quell any thought of disobedience among her brood of unmarried daughters. Amanda Berning also turns in a sterling performance in the smaller, but no less frightening role of the mad grandmother, María Josefa. Emily McKeown provides a refreshing note of diffidence as Poncia, the servant who, ironically, is the only person in the house who seems to be consistently able to stand up to Bernarda’s bullying. In the opening sequence, the cast makes very effective use of the black-box space, arranging chairs in long lines for the painfully static mourning ceremony, and then splintering the space with their restless agitation.
Clearly one of the reasons that director Jason Narvy chose this work was as an opportunity to showcase the talents of an unusually strong cohort of actresses. Kelsey Foltz makes a great and affecting Angustias, while Lydia Rae Benko (Magdalena), Alyssa Williams (Amelia), and Noemi Gonzalez (Adela) each add just the right notes as the sisters. Joelle Golda deserves special recognition for her work as Martirio, the most conflicted of the sisters. Martirio’s complex web of feelings about her family and about her sisters’ unseen suitor, Pepe el Romano, is the play’s subtle pulse.
No one expects to escape from the prison of this all-female household, but Adela has found a way to breach the walls from within. Her affair with Pepe el Romano is discovered, and Bernarda Alba seeks bloody vengeance by exchanging her cane for a gun. Although Pepe is reported to escape with his life, Adela is not so lucky. The subject matter of this tragedy is difficult, and the message is a dour one, but this House contains worlds of emotion.